The Selkirk-Tangiers A-6 helicopter flew fast and low, nearly skimming the tops of a sea of spruce trees, making me feel like I had a front row seat at an Imax movie. The pilot kept gazing heavenward for a sign – and not a religious one, thankfully, but a thin patch in the clagg, pilot slang for fog and cloud. When he found one, we rose in slow gyres up into another world, a white, snow-covered Valhalla called the Selkirk Mountains in central British Columbia. Three minutes later, he deposited us on a mountain top, leaving us in a cloud of powder, and about two minutes later, in profound silence. We had 100 mile plus views of mountain tops in every direction, as we stood shin deep in a blanket of thick, virgin, down-like snow that we would shortly begin dicing up into figure eights.
Eight hours later, after a hot stone massage and a long soak in the pool sized outdoor Jacuzzi, I collapsed onto a couch in the three story living room at Bighorn. This is a 15,000 square foot private timber chalet purpose built for heli skiing at the edge of a massive but embryonic Canadian ski resort called Revelstoke. A maid named Amanda, in starched black and white livery, offered me a glass of Louis Roeder on a silver palver. Chef Peter Hughes, formerly in service to the Kristiansen family, the Danish family that owns Lego, passed a tray of smoked elk, bison and moose. A five- course dinner awaited, accompanied by the wines of the adjacent OkanaganValley. Bighorn is a slope side Downton Abbey, a potent cocktail of extreme skiing and extreme luxury, garnished with a private helicopter pad.
In the pantheon of skiing, heli skiing is the peak, a rich man’s sport – as rule of thumb, figure $50 a minute to keep a helicopter going, then times that by 6 hours a day — with an element of danger, largely in the form of backcounty avalanches. And in the hierarchy of heli skiing, British Columbia is ultima thule, the land of many mountains and deep champagne powder, deep as in powder that can easily reach your knees and often your waist as you descend a mountain. Ground zero is “Revvy,” as the locals call it, is the heli skiing capital of the world. The sleepy town has a big mountain – Revelstoke — a collection of bungalows and historic brick buildings. It’s not ready for prime time by a long shot.
Other heli companies stash their guests at rustic lodges or motels in sleepy Revelstoke, the Best Western lights visible through the shades. Bighorn takes the heli equation to another dimension.
It is the brainchild of two shockingly young English brothers, Michael and Chris Kirkland. Heli skiing addicts since they were teens – they are scions of the Bowmer & Kirkland Group, the largest privately owned construction company in the UK — the brothers decided to build an English style Alpine chalet at Revelstoke Now you may ask, “What is an English style chalet?” It’s not just a building but a way that well-heeled Brits prefer to take a ski holiday in the Alps. You rent a grand home with multiple bedrooms and private chef in Klosters or Val D’Isere and spend a week there with family and friends. If you’re a bit wealthier, you buy or build your own. The brothers did just that in tony Courchevel. But while the skiing is great in the French Alps, it is epic in British Columbia.
“Chris and I have been skiing for 25 years,” explains Michael one morning at breakfast to me, “and we loved the idea of bringing a great European style luxury lodge to Canada. The bedroom configuration was designed around the number of skiers using an A Star helicopter.”
Michael, who fuels up on a decidedly non-luxe bowl of Rice Krispies each morning, is self-effacing and reflective at the breakfast table but once he hit the slopes, he’s a staggeringly accomplished skier who moves like a jackrabbit on Red Bull.
Bighorn is impressive but it’s not like the overblown ego houses that you see in Aspen. Okay, so it’s not small either. But every square foot has been carefully planned and designed. It’s timber peg, using Douglas fir beams and alder. There are enormous windows bringing in the mountains views of the Monashee Range across the Columbia River. There are three living levels, linked by a massive oak staircase that runs through the center of the house. The living room has a three-story ceiling and a stone fireplace with the requisite Bighorn sheep head.
The eight bedrooms are all ensuite, all laid out differently, and some have gas fireplaces and views across to Mt Begbie. There’s an iPad for your personal use and you will find your clothes neatly folded even if you left them in a heap as you rushed out to go skiing, as is my habit.
The lower living area has a spa with a small indoor pool, two treatment rooms, and yet another living room, this one outfitted with a snooker table. There’s an enormous outdoor hot tub – a pool, really — designed for long soaks, sipping a Powerhouse Pale Ale and taking in those mountain views. There’s also a state of the art screening room with tiered couches. All of this for a single group of guests — 16 is the max – who assemble for a heli house party.
But the look is understated. It is a perfectly proportioned house, from the pair of wingback chairs that sit in the front hallway, a nod to great English country houses, and tartan fabric, leather trunks, antique ship lights and vintage maps here and there.
A typical day at Bighorn? You graze through your morning multi-course breakfast – eggs, meats, cereals, fruits, smoothies – and handmade Bighorn Bangers courtesy of a local, Barry the Butcher.
“They have a gentle burp factor,” said Chef Peter. “About an hour later, in the chopper, you’ll remember and say, ‘Ooo, that was nice.’”
Fueled up, you pad downstairs to the boot room, large enough to easily accommodate all 16 people at once, as everyone removes their boots from the boot heater where they are perfectly toasty for the morning. Geared up, avalanche transceivers tested, you walk outside and watch a Selkirk Tangiers helicopter fly along the Columbia River valley and then swoop in to land on the private heli pad while Ride of the Valkyries plays in your head. Buckled in, the helicopter rises and you find yourself deposited and clicking into your bindings within 15 minutes on the best powder skiing in the world. A small nimble helicopter like an A 6 can deliver you to virgin snows free of other skiers, lift lines, rules, regulations and subdivisions of trophy homes. You ski 1,500 or 2,000 vertical feet and the chopper is waiting for you at the bottom of the run. Repeat eight or nine times in a day. It’s instant gratification taken to ridiculous levels.
We skied wide open runs like West Coast Bowl and Ghost, moved on to Badger with its well-spaced trees, and then lunched atop the run called Sepac. It was soup and sandwiches and tea in a stiff breeze in waist-deep snow at the top of a glacier. Hey, it felt like the top of the world. Below us, the thick slabs atop the glacier were like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle tossed into a box, gleaming bits of the blue glacial ice glinting.
On a given day, our pilot had a choice of 300 potential landing places, over an area of several hundred square miles. The Selkirks and Monashee ranges give the Alps a run for their money in terms of scenery. In terms of snow, nothing but nothing beats BC powder.
Is there a downside to all of this jubilation? Well yes, it’s the fact that it’s essential to have a bank account as deep as a Selkirk snow drift to experience Bighorn. This is not an experience for the faint of wallet.
Sure, you can take a day to ski the massive but nascent Revelstoke ski resort, go snowcat skiing, or devote a day to soaking and spa. But for the big dogs who crave the scent of powder, it’s all about the stash of the gods on the peaks above and the whirlybird that comes straight to your doorstep.
Seven nights from $64,500 CAD for 16 guests, all-inclusive. Heli-skiing from $7,735 per person for a five day private charter. 778-786-8258; bighornrevelstoke.com